Are Islington Council ‘All In’ For Disabled Sports?
Sport provides invaluable opportunities for the disabled community of Islington, but will a lack of funding prove detrimental for those who need it the most? Mike Stavrou investigates…
Often caught in a bubble of social isolation, disabled people not only benefit from the exercise and interaction provided by sports clubs, but for some, their lives revolve around these sessions.
“So many disabled people aren’t doing enough sport and are just sitting at home endlessly, which is why obesity has become such a huge problem. Just like we go to work or school every day, sport gives them that structure to their week too,” said Susanne Bergmann, support worker for local charity The Elfrida Society.
So what exactly have Islington Council done to ensure these vital sessions are readily available for disabled people in the borough?
The All in Islington project, a three-year scheme costing £400,000, was launched in 2015 and funded by Islington Council, UK charity Better and Sport England. The project’s aim is to encourage disabled people to take part in activities ranging from football to boccia.
John Thorne, head of Islington Council’s Leisure Team and the man responsible for All in Islington, revealed that the motivation behind the project was to “address the fact that disabled people are half as active as the general population”.
The All In Islington website and Twitter page detail new and upcoming sessions, in addition to what is already available for disabled people in Islington. A list of activities on offer this week can be found below:
Although the grand opening took place at the Emirates Stadium last year, the project had its soft launch in September 2014. So, what impact has the scheme had so far?
While the council are seemingly making great strides via All in Islington, the project team have only hosted six new sessions so far. As such, the vast majority of activities currently on offer are provided by private organisations who require their own individual funding, which is notoriously hard to come by nowadays.
Mike Bishop, Disability Sports Officer for Islington leisure provider GLL, helps coordinate the All in Islington initiative. He argues that it has had an immeasurable impact on the borough’s disabled community so far: “It’s had great success in terms of attracting disabled people to take part in new and existing activities.”
“There are lots of people who I have seen increase in confidence, self-esteem and fitness, whose lives have clearly improved.”
One of the charities involved in the project, Disability Sports Coach (DSC), has helped over 5,000 disabled people in London and over 60,000 across the UK. DSC’s operations manager, Louis Wickett-Padhgam, who oversees their local branch (Club Islington), has witnessed the group’s expansion from one participant in 2013 to 35 registered members in 2016.
Brother and sister George and Carly have come out of their shells as a result of attending the sessions, Louis said: “They were very nervous at the start, but now they’re really confident.
“George needs to run around a lot and being home-schooled, he doesn’t get the opportunity to go out into a playground every two hours. So being able to come to the club and let some steam off is really beneficial and ensures that he concentrates better with his academic work as well.”
But what happens when the money that keeps these clubs afloat inevitably runs out?
Susanne Bergmann, who oversees the Elfrida Society’s badminton session at the Sobell Centre, was left “shell shocked” at the news that the session’s funding from the Big Lottery Fund had come to an end. Faced with the possibility that the activity may soon have to stop running, she said: “My job is on the line – I want to just lie on the floor and cry.”
Susanne has been left disillusioned by the council’s lack of funding in such a vital sector. With an undertone of frustration in her voice, she said: “All of this used to be funded by the council but they have no money anymore, it’s just gone, it’s awful.
“It’s detrimental for the people that come here and enjoy themselves. Some people that we work with even go out and find jobs because of the structure that the sessions provide.”
Yet the ones who will suffer the most if the club has to shut down are the participants themselves.
Claire*, who has severe learning difficulties, has attended Elfrida’s badminton sessions since they commenced in 2011. Struggling to contain her excitement, she said: “I can do this [makes motion of overhead shot]! I enjoy coming to the sessions, it’s very, very good. I come on the bus by myself, and go home by myself. I am very happy here.”
Badminton coach Wayne Bridge, said: “Claire struggled to hit it [the shuttlecock] for the first year, by the second year she was hitting it, and she set a new record today of 10 shots in a row.
“I’ve got five kids, it’s like watching them grow up, and to see Claire start from the beginning and improve makes me feel great. Every time she’s happy, I’m happy.”
No monetary value can be placed on the development these clubs offer to disabled people. The fact that people like Claire could soon go without them means that vast improvements need to be made for the All In Islington to reach its goal of being ‘all-inclusive’.
Perhaps, however, the burden does not fall solely on Islington Council, but the government itself. Disabled sports should be treated in exactly the same way as sports for able bodied people.
Greater investment is needed to spark the creation of more projects like All in Islington and, when they are up and running, to supply the funding and guidance they need to succeed.
*Claire is not her real name.